Even Ruth Bader Ginsburg Falls Into the Trap of Abortion Stigma

In a recent interview with Elle magazine, the Supreme Court justice shows she’s imperfect after all.

[PHOTO: Ruth Bader Ginsburg sitting for a 2019 discussion at Georgetown University Law Center]
Notorious RBG shows she’s imperfect after all. Alex Wong/Getty Images

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In a recent interview with Elle magazine (excerpted here) Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is, in many ways, as awesome as we’ve come to expect. She calls out fellow Justice Anthony Kennedy as the reason why gay rights are advancing in the United States while women’s rights recede, describes how as a litigator she grew into her role as a “teacher” to male judges on gender discrimination, and discusses the importance of having (at least) three female justices on the conservative Roberts Court.

When asked which decision of her tenure on the Court will have the most significance, Justice Ginsburg says Hobby Lobby—not surprising given her passionate 30-page dissent in the case. “I think 50 years from now, people will not be able to understand Hobby Lobby,” she says.

So far, so good.

But then, it happens. Notorious RBG shows she’s imperfect after all.

“I think on the issue of choice, one of the reasons, to be frank, that there’s not so much pro-choice activity is that young women, including my daughter and my granddaughter, have grown up in a world where they know if they need an abortion, they can get it,” she said. “Not that either one of them has had one, but it’s comforting to know if they need it, they can get it.”

She goes on:

The impact of all these restrictions is on poor women, because women who have means, if their state doesn’t provide access, another state does. I think that the country will wake up and see that it can never go back to [abortions just] for women who can afford to travel to a neighboring state …

I appreciate Ginsburg’s point here: that the poor bear most of the burden of reproductive rights restrictions, and that in the United States “access” has become almost synonymous with “privilege.” But her point could be made without reinforcing abortion stigma, which is exactly what Justice Ginsburg does with her disclaimer that neither her daughter nor her granddaughter have had abortions. How does she know? And so what if they have?

As a woman whose personal and professional story is inextricably tied to the fight for gender equality—moving from immigrant, working-class Brooklyn to tie for first in her class at Harvard Law School, then co-founding the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU—she can do better than this.

What’s disappointing is that her disclaimer about the women in her family undercuts her critical point about privilege and access to health care, especially reproductive health care. That is one of the dangers of abortion stigma: it solidifies barriers to access. By being quick to explain that despite having the privilege to access an abortion neither her daughter nor her granddaughter have done so, Justice Ginsburg reinforces the false notion that “other people” have abortions. It’s exactly this kind of thinking that allows abortion specifically, and reproductive health care generally, to be seen as something “other” to health care. Without realizing it, Justice Ginsburg supported the very kind of framework put forward by employers seeking to exclude contraception coverage from their employee health-care plans that she so rightly argued against in Hobby Lobby.

It is undeniable that in the United States women of color and poor women face the greatest barriers to access. And it is also undeniable that stigma surrounding reproductive health care helps keep those barriers in place. Surely Justice Ginsburg understand this, even if it didn’t sound like it in Elle.